Genetic memory. It’s a popular concept these days, with so many of us searching for our ancestors. Ancestry, 23andMe, and MyHeritage are just a few examples of DNA testing services that can tell us who we are and where we come from. And naturally we feel a connection with our ancestors, wherever they hail from.
But what exactly is genetic memory?
Wikipedia says, “In psychology, genetic memory is a memory present at birth that exists in the absence of sensory experience, and is incorporated into the genome over long spans of time.” My daughter is a third-year psychology student who openly scorns the idea of genetic memory and calls it empathy.
I’m a self-confessed romantic. I write historical romance novels, and many of them are set in Ireland. Those that are set elsewhere features Irish characters. So it’s fair to say I feel a deep connection to Ireland and her people.
Writing historical fiction also takes a lot of research, one of my favorite hobbies. For my first novel, In Sunshine or in Shadow, I had to do quite a bit of research on the Famine (An Gorta Mór), because even though it was set in 1850, that terrible time cast a long shadow over my characters and their story. So in that way, of course, I developed empathy for what the Irish suffered so long ago.
When I decided to take the Heart of the Wild West Tour, I was thrilled to read the itinerary and discover that we would be visiting a 19th Century famine village, complete with ruined cottages from the era. But I never dreamed I’d have such a strong reaction when I got there.
It was a typical lovely Irish day, with the sun and clouds indulging in games of tag and the wind blew cool and moist all around us. We approached the deserted village by a small, narrow road that led through tall, sweet-smelling grass. Finally, we arrived at the first, crumbling cottage, and I tumbled into a past I’d never known but recognized instantly.
I felt a sense of anticipation as I walked toward that dead village. At first, I thought, “Oh, I’m just excited to see the place and absorb the history.” But it was more than that. I felt almost as if I were coming home after a long exile.
I went inside a cottage, and as I stood within its decaying walls, I felt as if I’d lived there in another time. I gazed at the empty hearth (the true heart of every Irish cottage), I thought of the nights before the turf fire, of stories told and songs sung, of kneeling to say the Rosary. I could almost taste the many meals that had been prepared there. And I knew the ladder would lead to the loft where once the children had slept soundly and dreamed sweet dreams.
When I turned back to the door, my eyes filled with tears and my throat felt tight.
I saw a woman sweeping the hearth clean, looking around one last time, maybe touching a bit of the stone wall before taking up a pitifully small bundle of possessions and crossing the threshold for the last time. There were tears streaming down her face, and sorrow burdened her heart.
At that moment, a strange shiver of awareness spidered down my spine. Who was that woman? Had I known her in another time, another life? Had we stood outside in the sunshine, watching our children play together and exchanging the latest news and gossip? Had I watched her leave, knowing we’d never see each other again?
Or was I that woman? Had my husband and children died of starvation? Were all my other relations gone? Was I setting off on this great and terrifying adventure all alone?
I’m convinced those moments in that ruined cottage were true genetic memory.
But it wasn’t over yet…
My steps felt heavier as we left the famine village, my spirits lower despite the many notes and photos I’d taken (for future stories). I pulled my jacket closer around me, and it could have been a woollen shawl, threadbare and old, but the only source of warmth left to me.
I felt as if I were leaving a beloved home, as if were the one setting out to take ship from Ireland’s green shores to America, Canada, Australia or even England.
What lay ahead at the end of the road? Would I survive the terrible conditions on the “coffin ships”? And if I survived, what would this strange New World be like? Were the streets really paved with gold, would I be able to find work to keep body and soul together? Could I possibly be happy away from the mist and magical light, the emerald green and blue skies that are Ireland?
I’d like to think I’d known the woman who lived in that cottage, been her friend. And I’d like to think she did survive the journey to the New World, and that she prospered there. Maybe she fell in love, married, and had a houseful of strong, healthy children who were lucky enough to know the taste of milk, meat and eggs. Maybe she died a very old woman of 100 years or so, surrounded by her children and her children’s children.
Well, I said I was a romantic. And as a romance author, I’m constantly penning happy endings for my characters. So why not this gentle woman, too?
I have purposely left out any mention of where this famine village is located. It could be anywhere in Ireland. The stories are both the same and unique.
I love writing about Ireland and her storied history. If you’d like to check out my books, here’s where you can find me.
About Cynthia: I believe I was destined to be interested in history. One of my distant ancestors, Thomas Aubert, reportedly sailed up the St. Lawrence River to discover Canada some 26 years before Jacques Cartier’s 1534 voyage. Another relative was a 17thCentury “King’s Girl,” one of a group of young unmarried girls sent to New France (now the province of Quebec) as brides for the habitants (settlers) there. My passion for reading made me long to write books like the ones I enjoyed, and I tried penning sequels to my favorite Nancy Drew mysteries. Later, fancying myself a female version of Andrew Lloyd Weber, I drafted a musical set in Paris during WWII. A former journalist and lifelong Celtophile, I enjoyed a previous career as a reporter/editor for a small chain of community newspapers before returning to my first love, romantic fiction. My stories usually include an Irish setting, hero or heroine, and sometimes all three. I’m the author of The Claddagh Series, historical romances set in Ireland and beyond, and The Wild Geese Series, in which five Irish heroes return from the American Civil War to find love and adventure. I’m a member of the Romance Writers of America and Hearts Through History Romance Writers. A lifelong resident of Montreal, Canada, I still live there with my own Celtic hero and our two adult children.